British Survey Reaffirms Government Space Policy

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Britain’s space industry has urged its government to hold firm to its policy of refusing to invest in launch vehicles or any programs involving astronauts, and wants the European Space Agency (ESA) to avoid missions with near-term commercial potential, according to a survey conducted for the British National Space Centre (BNSC).

Completed in mid-September, the survey will be used to help set British government space spending priorities in advance of a conference of ESA governments scheduled for December in Berlin. The conference is designed to fix ESA’s agenda for the next three or four years.

The British government has taken only a minimal stake in the Ariane 5 and other European rocket programs. Astronaut-related programs including the international space station have gone without British participation.

According to the survey results, British companies see no reason for the policy to change except as part of international projects with broader appeal. “[M]anned space or launchers should only be supported as common endeavours with the U.S., Russia or other countries and not as a major element of Europe’s space spending,” according to a BNSC summary of the survey results.

As things stand now, launchers and astronaut-related missions together account for some 40 percent of ESA’s budget, with no major changes planned in the next several years.

The British distance from Europe’s launcher sector extends to the use of European-built rockets such as the Ariane 5. The government’s position, as summarized in an introduction to the survey, is that no special preference should be granted European rockets. Instead, satellite owners should be free to seek the best value for money.

In recent years, ESA has expressed an interest in building satellites whose mission is somewhere between research and commercial applications, especially regarding Earth observation.

The British survey respondents said this should stop because it “distorts the commercial market. ” ESA’s role should be to facilitate industry-led solutions, the respondents said.

In what might be considered a contradiction to that point of view, the survey finds broad support for Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation initiative, which includes some technology development but is mainly a commercial system designed to make a profit.

British government investment in Galileo, however, should be made only on the condition that the Galileo system operator is permitted to select hardware according to its value, not according to its political acceptability in Europe, the respondents said.

Alan Hicks, secretary general of the U.K. Industrial Space Committee, said British industry is united behind the idea that Galileo’s operations should be conducted as a business, free to select suppliers from anywhere.

Galileo is just the latest example of the difference in philosophy between the French and British governments when it comes to space development programs, according to Stephane Janichewski, director of programs and strategy at the French space agency, CNES.

Speaking during a Sept. 21 space policy conference in Paris, Janichewski said France believes investing in a high-technology program like Galileo has a value in and of itself, in addition to the eventual downstream commercial revenues that should result. The British view, he said, hesitates to invest in the system until the revenue-generating potential is proved. Both positions are valid, Janichewski said.

The British space budget is about 195 million British pounds ($347 million) per year, of which 60 percent goes to ESA and most of the rest is invested through Europe’s meteorological satellite organization, Eumetsat of Darmstadt, Germany.

Britain invests little in maintaining its own national space program outside of ESA, and that lack of investment is cited in the survey as a liability for British companies as they seek commercial contracts against French, German and Italian competitors.